The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1932/33-1934)
The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.
I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.
This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.
Frank Capra, Lady for a Day
George Cukor, Little Women
Frank Lloyd, Cavalcade
I hate this category. So much. What the hell do you do with it?
Lady for a Day is a good film, but not one of Capra’s absolute best. That would come after this. Though this is the film where he learned that formula that would suit him well in the decade following this.
This movie is about Apple Annie, an old woman who sells fruit. She’s poor, but everyone loves her. She gave her daughter away to a convent so she could have a better life. All along, she’s been writing to her daughter, telling her all these stories about how she’s a part of high society, and lives the good life. Then she finds out that her daughter is coming to town with her fiancée. She tells this to all the people who buy apples from her, including a gangster who thinks her apples are a good luck charm. And he gets all his people involved in helping her pass herself off as a (insert title here). It’s a really touching story. Everything of course goes horribly, but somehow everyone pulls it together at just the right moment for a touching finale.
The direction here is pretty standard. Capra knows what he’s doing, but this doesn’t stand out. Capra’s strength is typically in the writing. That’s why I feel he won three of these during this decade. So this is fine, and I like the film, but unless I have to, I don’t see this as a winner.
Little Women – you’ve heard of the book. You know the story. Sisters. The old one is the meaty role, the young one steals scenes, and one of them dies. Everyone knows it. Not gonna waste time recapping that. Overall, the direction is fine. It looks like a classy film. That helps. Nothing overtly special about it that declares victory.
Cavalcade is your Best Picture winner. It’s about a British family from New Year’s 1899 to New Year’s 1933. We watch them over this time, with historical events as backdrops (World War I, the Titanic, etc). I do remember some nice framing here, and some visual motifs throughout. So that kind of makes it your default winner. There’s not a whole lot to say about this category. And since we have to go only by what’s nominated, we’re left with a pretty uninteresting category.
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The Reconsideration: I consider this the least interesting Best Director category of all time. Not a whole lot going on here. You have a Capra movie, which is good, but the direction isn’t out of this world good. Again, too early to really take this into account (plus I don’t want to if I can help it), but he does win three of these. But technically, at this point in time, he hasn’t won anything, so I’m not gonna let that talk me out of anything. Cukor did a fine job here, but I don’t see anything that makes me think, on effort alone, that I have to vote for it. Cukor wouldn’t win one of these for another 30 years, which is a shame, but I’m not gonna let that talk me into voting for him. The effort is fine, but to me, he’s a second choice at best. (Though the Academy did announce that Capra finished second in the voting.) Which really only leaves Lloyd as your default winner. His movie does have visual motifs and good framing, and it won Best Picture. He seems like the clear choice here. I have nothing else, because the category is so bland, so I’m gonna stick with him. No point in wasting time arguing this one out. Seems like you’re either going with Lloyd or Cukor here, and if you’re going Cukor, chances are it’s for some logistical reasons (or you just really like his movie the best, which is totally fine). This category seems pretty inconsequential, historically, so I don’t think it matters what way anyone votes.
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- Frank Lloyd, Cavalcade
- George Cukor, Little Women
- Frank Capra, Lady for a Day
- Little Women
- Lady for a Day
My Vote: Frank Lloyd, Cavalcade
Recommendations: You should see all the Best Picture winners. Which means Cavalcade. Little Women is a movie you’ll end up seeing one version of. I’ve seen all three. This is Katharine Hepburn, the second is Liz Taylor, and the third is Winona Ryder. (Not exactly the most accurate description, since Liz plays the young daughter and the other two play the oldest one.) If you do the Oscar Quest, you’ll see this one and the ’94 version. And the middle one is nice and Technicolor. And then there’s Lady for a Day, which is a great story, but one that Capra never quite cracked. He made it twice, here and as his final film, Pocketful of Miracles. Neither is quite the classic Capra movie you’d think it would be, but the story has all the right elements. This one is good. Capra is always worthwhile.
The Last Word: Not an interesting category. It seems the easiest thing is to stick with the guy that won. Now it matches up with Best Picture and we can move on to more interesting categories. Honestly, though, if you feel strongly about any of them, you can go with that. To me, Lloyd provided the best effort of the three, so I’ll stick with him. Otherwise, this is pretty forgettable. Go with whatever strong feeling you have.
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Frank Capra, It Happened One Night
Victor Schertzinger, One Night of Love
W.S. Van Dyke, The Thin Man
It Happened One Night is a perfect movie. It’s a template for the romantic comedy genre. It’s Frank Capra’s first truly flawless film, and the man made several. Claudette Colbert is a spoiled heiress who wants to marry a playboy. Her father thinks the man is only after her money and refuses to let her go through with it. So she runs away (jumping off a ship on the coast of Florida) to go marry the guy in New York. Of course, this leads to a media firestorm. All the reporters are out looking for her. Cut to Clark Gable, who just drunkenly quit his newspaper. He runs into her and realizes who she is. So he hops on the bus with her and starts traveling with her, and hilarity and romance ensue. It’s a really great movie. The first movie to sweep the Big Five (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay). It’s hard not to like this movie.
One Night of Love is about an opera singer who gets a job with the best vocal coach in the world. Of course, he’s a perfectionist who pushes people to their limits. It’s kind of like Whiplash, only they fuck. Well, not quite. He’s only interested in her maximizing her talent, and tells her there can be no romance between the two of them. Of course that’s not what she wants. It’s actually more like The Red Shoes. He’s the stern teacher who won’t admit how he feels about his pupil, only here everything works out nicely in the end.
It’s okay. I didn’t love it. I’m not a fan of the opera musicals. Give me those Cole Porter and Irving Berlin songs any day over opera music. Especially opera in English. Doesn’t sound great. This always felt like the weak link of the category to me, but it was actually the most nominated film of the year. I haven’t seen it since I watched it for the Quest, so maybe I ought to go back and give it another chance. Not that it’ll change my opinion for the category (since it’s pretty clear this is 3 of 3 no matter how you slice it). But maybe I’ll end up enjoying the movie more than I did the first time.
The Thin Man is my favorite movie of all time. Just to get that out there. It’s based on a Dashiell Hammett novel, and it’s one of the finest screen pairings of all time. Nick and Nora have become synonymous with perfect screen couple. William Powell and Myrna Loy were so great together they did 14 movies together. Got that? 14. Sure, one of them is a brief cameo, but that was the last thing they did, designed to capitalize on their history. More of a punchline. Anyway —
This movie is a mystery at heart. The main characters don’t even appear for almost the first ten minutes. An inventor disappears and his daughter wants to find out where he is. Soon, the man’s girlfriend is found dead, and he’s the suspect. So the daughter finds her father’s old friend, Nick Charles, a retired detective. He’s married Nora, a wealthy socialite, and plans to spend the rest of his days drinking and living the good life. And despite his best efforts, he can’t seem to stay out of the case. No matter what he does, he can’t seem to stay retired. Even his wife wants him to take the case, because she wants to see him at work. And eventually the whole movie ends at a dinner party with all the suspects gathered around a table, and the immortal line, “Will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts.”
It’s a perfect movie. It combines everything I love about movies — snappy dialogue, sarcastic leads, copious alcohol consumption, and witty drunks. And we have the added twist of the detective who doesn’t want to be a detective yet solves the case anyway despite trying not to. I almost wish this movie came out in another year, because maybe then it could have had a chance.
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The Reconsideration: Look, I’m biased. My favorite movie of all time is on this list. I’m freely admitting this going in. That said, being perfectly honest, it’s Capra all the way. It’s not even worth wasting time saying otherwise. Van Dyke does some great directing, but Capra wins this category hands down. This might be Capra’s best directorial effort of his career (it’s between this and It’s a Wonderful Life). Schertzinger is clearly your #3 here. His movie is way less remembered than the other two, and just when you watch the films, you can spot the level of directing in each one. It’s Capra, then it’s Van Dyke, then it’s Schertzinger. In the 30s, it’s actually really easy to spot good directing. But the answer is clearly Capra, and this is me saying that despite The Thin Man being my favorite film of all time. Still gonna rank that #1, though. But I will vote for Capra, since I’m trying to vote for what truly I feel is the best effort in the category, regardless of logistics.
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Rankings (category and film):
- W.S. Van Dyke, The Thin Man
- Frank Capra, It Happened One Night
- Victor Schertzinger, One Night of Love
My Vote: Frank Capra, It Happened One Night
Recommendations: It Happened One Night is an essential movie for film buffs. The Thin Man is essential if you like movies. Which sounds the same, but it’s not. One you have to see if you’re into film. The other, if you want to see a great movie, you have to see. Both are 30s classics and all-time comedy classics. Though I guess It Happened One Night is more romance than comedy. And One Night of Love is probably worth seeing because it got nominated for 6 Oscars in an era where it was hard to get that many. Otherwise, I only saw it the once and still don’t remember too much memorable about it.
The Last Word: Capra really deserved to win this category. I don’t know how people see it any other way. And this is coming from someone who has every reason to vote for Van Dyke.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)